An Exploration of Cynicism

What is cynicism?

“It is a judgment that no one and nothing is worthy of respect.” There is disbelief in the integrity of others. Even typical human foibles are seen as a reason to convict a person as being guilty of a crime. (Coaching – Evoking Excellence in Others by James Flaherty)

What does it look like?

The behaviour of a cynic is to insult, disparage and put everyone and everything down. In organizations cynicism is infectious and eventually everyone gets in on the act. Gossip and “bitch sessions” abound.

What is the impact of cynicism on organizations?

Disillusioned employees feel betrayed and suspicious of the system and will withhold commitment either overtly or covertly. They get mired in negative thoughts and eventually begin to dread coming to work. They will stake out a small corner of activity where they have complete control so that they don’t have to interact and become more disillusioned. This makes collaboration impossible, and improvements unlikely.

Where does it come from?

  • when overly high expectations and standards have not been met;
  • when people’s actions are not congruent with their words;
  • when people don’t do what they say they will do;
  • when people expect the worst and then get the worst;
  • when people don’t/can’t do what they are paid to do;
  • when changes are implemented without consulting those who have the practical expertise;
  • when people are caught in a lie

What can we do about cynicism?

  1. Know ourselves – who we are and what we stand for. Be clear about our values and standards.
  2. Operate from a place of integrity and principle so that trust is developed.
  3. Have some meaningful dialogue about where we are going and why.
  4. Discuss and agree on how we handle mistakes and omissions. Ask what we have learned for next time.
  5. Take time to explore and air expectations we have of each other.
  6. Discuss what competence looks like. Explore ways to increase capacity.
  7. Agree to speak and operate from an optimistic and enthusiastic perspective (even when our thoughts are sceptical). Remind each other when this begins to slip.
  8. If something is not up to expectation, decide to take appropriate action to correct it or drop it completely – forget it and move on to the next thing.
  9. Listen for understanding; check for accuracy.
  10. Build community. Connect with people on the human level.

(Adapted from A prescription for leading in cynical times by Kouzes and Posner)

 Coaching Questions to Stimulate Reflection About Your Life & Work

  1. What is the atmosphere like in your work place? How does that affect your ability to perform?
  2. Describe the environment that would cause your magnificence to blossom?
  3. What sort of contribution are you prepared to make toward making that environment a reality for you and your colleagues?
  4. How could you enlist others in your vision of this environment?